Book Reviews: Examining Living Dangerously vs. Being Careful

By Justin Moyer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

If you're reading this, congratulations! You've outlasted Y2K, Sept. 11, anthrax, measles, mumps, rubella, SIDS, SARS, bird flu, car accidents that claim 3,000 lives daily, the deadly pairing of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, and the occasional Metro crash. You've dodged threats real and imagined -- all of the overblown, underreported, preventable, unpredictable and downright freaky things that might, could, should and do kill people every day. You've survived. Now, take a moment and try to remember . . .

Was it thrilling?

Why is our fear so continually misplaced? We light cigarettes with hands scrubbed clean by antibacterial soap. We are terrified of statistically safe air travel but routinely break highway speed limits. We stretch our Constitution to battle terrorism but only reluctantly regulate saturated fat. We love danger -- mountain climbing, scuba diving, NASCAR racing -- but yearn to know . . . um . . . well . . . when you say "danger," how "dangerous" do you mean, exactly?

Former New York Times writer Neil Strauss's Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life (Harper; paperback, $16.99) is a dispatch from the lily-livered side of the daredevil-dandelion continuum. Convinced by 9/11 and the subsequent reign of George W. Bush that civilization would soon collapse, Strauss goes all Mad Max, readying for WTSHTF ("When the [Expletive] Hits the Fan" in survivalist parlance) by seeking second citizenship in an obscure Caribbean nation, shutting off his utilities to simulate doomsday and learning how to slaughter goats for food. "I'm a runner," he admits, describing his decision to join a subculture of trackers, gun nuts and uber-rich "permanent travelers" who are suspicious of any sovereign government. "Emergency" boasts the same irreverent, blue sensibility Strauss brought to the memoirs he ghost-wrote for Marilyn Manson, Mötley Crüe and Jenna Jameson. Having survived those encounters, he can survive anything.

If the National Geographic's Complete Survival Manual (paperback, $29.95) sounds less fun, that's because its humorless title perfectly conveys its deadly serious content. Outlining eight specific scenarios ("The Desert," "Subpolar Regions," etc.), Michael S. Sweeney surfs a tidal wave of expert information about first aid, weather, navigation, emergency preparedness and how to build snowshoes with five branches. Though not of much interest for anyone not routinely faced with moose attacks, the "Manual" does offer "Into Thin Air"-style survivor narratives at the end of each chapter that will compel Boy Scouts to grab the book from the bottom of their rucksacks. This is a real manual meant to be used in survival situations; even the water-resistant cover and durable pages scream "Alive."

Then again, maybe we don't need a manual for survival. In fact, maybe living too safely isn't really living. We "imagine all sorts of terrors and perils lurking on every corner that either don't exist at all, or are about as likely to happen . . . as being struck down by a comet, or eaten by an escaped rhinoceros," complains Warwick Cairns in How to Live Dangerously (St. Martin's Griffin; paperback, $12.95). He's written a barbed polemic against ADHD diagnoses, the nanny state, traffic lights and an overcautious culture that turns children into "pampered prisoners" and their parents into harried turnkeys. Though Cairns's libertarian ranting grows tiresome, his writing on fear ably challenges our obsession with the spectacular things (airplanes, mass murderers) unlikely to kill us while ignoring the commonplace things (cancer) that probably will. Still, one wonders about the credibility of an author who takes shots at organic food and boasts that he "worked in a warehouse, drilled wells, and traveled through northern Kenya before settling on a career in advertising."

But why live dangerously if living dangerously isn't fun? Absinthe & Flamethrowers (Chicago Review; paperback, $16.95), William Gurstelle's book about "doing interesting, exciting, edgy, and artful stuff," is a guy's Anarchist Cookbook. Inspired by Hunter S. Thompson's drug-addled, ill-advised vision of "edgework" as outlined in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Gurstelle offers lessons in whip-cracking, Bartitsu (a lost English art of self-defense practiced by Sherlock Holmes) and even building a DIY flamethrower that would surely run afoul of the Patriot Act. Though a bit stodgy in concept -- did the father of gonzo journalism need a rabble-rouser's road map? -- Gurstelle's tome at least offers advice on recognizing good absinthe, for which van Gogh enthusiasts and visitors to Prague will be grateful.

"Thrill-seeking behavior in the real world is modeled by what statisticians call a normal curve," Gurstelle writes: Evel Knievel on one side, J. Alfred Prufrock on the other ("Do I dare to eat a peach?"). Maybe, in order to survive, it's best for us to float between these two extremes, driving 55 -- Sammy Hagar be damned -- with our seat belts fastened until, late at night on an empty country road, we can step on the gas and test our limits. Safely.

Moyer is a musician and recording engineer in Washington.

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